A day at the polls in Harare

If this was the day that the big change would take place, Harare did not look the part. If it weren’t for the posters and the tent structures for polling stations on open land, one would be forgiven for thinking this was just another sleepy public holiday in the capital of Zimbabwe.

The excitement, the expectation and the frantic last-minute campaigning by various political parties that one would expect to accompany such strong winds of change passed Harare by.

With change—the core of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) campaign—in mind, the people in Harare went to the polls on Saturday.
A barrage of television advertisements told them it was the right thing to do. In this MDC stronghold, the most challenging decision to make was whether it would be change at the hands of MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai or former Zanu-PF finance minister Simba Makoni.

On the way into Harare, dozens of posters displayed the ever-defiant-looking President Robert Mugabe with yellow spray paint covering his face—the capital’s way of showing its distaste for Zimbabwe’s president of the last 28 years.

At the overcrowded and stinking hostels of Mbari, a township outside Harare, Zanu-PF posters were taped over with newspapers—ironically, the state-owned Herald, the only newspaper easily available in Harare. This week both the Financial Gazette and the Zimbabwe Independent had printing problems, but they did appear eventually.

By Saturday evening, after voting stations had closed, some African observers charged that they had discovered fraudulent voters’ rolls, listing more than 8 000 apparently non-existent people.

Marwick Khumalo, head of the Pan African Parliament, said that in one Harare constituency, “It has been brought to our attention that out of the 24 678 registered voters, more than 8 450 have been registered under block 081083 ... which is a deserted land with a few scattered wooden sheds.”

In a letter to the Zimbabwean Electoral Commission (ZEC) seen by journalists, he said 70 more people were registered under another empty piece of land in the same area.

“Taking into account that there have been a lot of complaints from opposition political parties regarding the fact that the ZEC has printed approximately 50% more ballot papers than the number of registered voters, the mission would like to request that ZEC clarifies these claims at the earliest of its convenience,” he said.

ZEC officials were not, however, immediately available for comment.

Posh poll

In 2005’s elections, the polling stations closed despite hundreds of people who had not voted yet because the queues were too long. This time, some voters did not want to leave anything to chance. In the townships they came equipped with blankets at 3am to ensure they were first in line when it was time to make their mark.

In Avondale, a posh suburb in the west of Harare, things looked slightly different.

Voters had packed flasks of coffee, rusks and glossy magazines to while away the waiting time. Some had their foldout chairs in which they could wait comfortably for the polling station at the local high school to open, which it did promptly at 7am. After voting, they were planning to round up friends and spend a day on the golf course.

Avondale was even graced with a celebrity voter. Tsvangirai arrived at 9.30am with his sidekicks in big 4x4 bakkies, the only vehicles allowed inside the school gates. Other voters had to park their Mercedeses and Audis in the street outside.

There was no question that “Morgan is more” for the residents of Avondale, as his campaign slogan said. But he was also the darling of the media, with more journalists attending his voting event than that of Mugabe. They all scrambled at 7am to see the other presidential hopeful, Simba Makoni, cast his vote, but Makoni was a disappointing no-show. He had a good excuse, though—he had to be rushed to hospital instead. Some blamed food poisoning; others said it was poisoned water. Either way, he voted later in the day, far away from the glaring eye of the media.

The poshest suburb of them all, Barrowdale Brookes—where Mugabe’s retirement home is located and some army generals have their not-so-humble abodes—saw Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono cast his vote.

Flanked by two bodyguards and impeccably dressed in a dark blue suit, Gono was chauffeur-driven in his jet-black Mercedes into the gates of Heritage School, which provides the most expensive education a pupil in Harare can get.

He could have left the body guards at home because at 10am on election day, the polling station at the school was practically deserted.

The long queues that were the trademark of the 2002 and 2005 elections in Zimbabwe are not what the 2008 elections will be known for in Harare. It is said that voters in rural areas were more enthusiastic, but in the capital, where the opposition has the most support, voter turnout was disappointing.

Even polling stations in the townships were not crowded. Voters complained that the actual process of checking if their name was on the voters’ roll took a long time, but said that making their cross on the four ballot papers (president, Senate, Parliament and local council) was a quick and easy process.

Bread or voting?

At the Beverley shopping centre, which consists of a bar, a bottle store and a small cash-and-carry, voting was the last thing on the mind of Catherine Chitinga (27), an unemployed women.

Chitinga chose the queue for bread rather than the queue to vote. She had been waiting for two hours for the bread to arrive at the shop and would vote later, after attending the funeral of a relative. “I’ll go to vote after that, if they [the polling stations] are still open,” she said.

Tichaona Bepe, a lieutenant in the army, had already voted and was cooling off with local sorghum beer, a milky liquid sold in brown plastic bottles that makes the drink perfect for sharing with friends. “This is for Morgan,” he said, proudly showing his pink-coloured pinky stained by voting ink.

Although he was emphatic about the fact that the MDC would win the election, he was not above using the voting day for his own purposes. “They [my superiors] phoned me and said I should come and take some of my people, but I said no. I told them I haven’t voted yet, I will only be able to come in a few hours.”

What if Morgan didn’t win? What if Mugabe managed to defy all odds, like so many times before, and won the elections by hook or by crook?

“Then we have a problem. That is the problem,” said Bepe, echoed by his friends who also shook their heads.

And that is all. These fervent MDC supporters in the outskirts of Harare had, like their leaders, no solutions or post-election plans to ensure that change did take place.

There was to be no uprising, no taking to the streets, no removing Mugabe by force. Even a fervent strategist for Makoni had no idea what would happen then. “The people will have to decide; they will have to show that they have reached their limit,” he said.

The next few weeks will show whether Zimbabweans will force change upon Mugabe, or whether their limits will be tested once again.

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